Ultra Ambassador

How does ultrarunner Ray Zahab—who became famous for expeditions traversing the harshest terrain on earth—up the ante? By taking high school kids on his next series of trips.

Ray Zahab

Ray Zahab during his expedition on Baffin Island, 2009     Photo: Impossible2Possible

More than a decade ago, ultrarunner Ray Zahab started his transformation from a 170-lb, pack-a-day smoker into one of the world's most famous ultrarunners. After discovering the 100-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra in the pages of Explore magazine, he decided to enter the 2004 race and won. Since then he has run across the Sahara Desert in temperatures as high as 130 degrees and trekked across Russia’s Lake Baikal in temps as low as negative 40 degrees. As he finished the Sahara and saw the Red Sea, an idea entered his head and took hold. In 2007, he started Impossible2Possible and began leading high-school youth ambassadors on ultrarunning expeditions to places like the Bolivia Salt Flats and the Brazilian Amazon. Outside caught up with Zahab before his next trip with four youth ambassadors to Rajasthan, India.

Outside: What is your training schedule like when you’re not globetrotting?
Zahab: It depends on what I’m doing during the year. I do three projects a year. Two of those projects are youth based, so it’s expeditions where young people go on the expeditions, they do the project themselves. Right now I’m looking toward my next expedition, which will take place in January of 2012. I’m starting the building phase during the summer, and I’m running probably 100 km (62 miles) per week.

Do you do any sort of cross training?
The only cross training that I would do—if you would consider it such—is core strength training and some plyometrics and a little bit of functional strength training. In the fall, as I’m building for my expedition, then I really start to hit the weights more. I’m not a very big guy and the expeditions that I do, like the January expedition once a year, is generally very grueling. This past year I ran across the Atacama Desert (800 miles), averaging about 60 km (37 miles) a day. The terrain was horrible, a lot of it was very difficult, so I lost a tremendous amount of weight. It just falls off of my body. So in order to maintain my strength over the course of the 20 days, I build muscle mass before I go.

So what kind of fluctuations do you see in your weight?
My normal weight is between 150 and 155 pounds. For running the Sahara in 2006 and 2007, I gained up to 162. By the end of that 111-day expedition I weighed 119 pounds. So it’s a pretty big fluctuation.

Are you worried about long-term effects on your body?
If you take into perspective that I started running when I was 35 years old, I’ve had a very short running career—I’m 42 right now. In that span of time, I’ve really been able to learn a tremendous amount about my body, and I think that the underlying theme of this crazy running journey is that we’re all capable of doing extraordinary things in our lives.

During the Atacama I ended up with a blister that became totally septic. I mean it was infected and I had to make a choice on whether I was going to continue running on this blister. I end up going and cutting my shoe in half ‘cause it was so swollen. I really thought it was going to be the end of the expedition. I willed myself that if I can get through this day and see that I haven’t done any permanent damage, and it’s not torn up any worse, then I know I can finish, and I can run on the pain. The pain I can deal with, but making it (the injury) worse I would not have been able to deal with. I’ve said this before, it’s 90 percent mental, the other 10 percent is all in your head.

That’s an awful lot of pain and suffering to go through. Why do you do this?
The whole reason I do this, my passion, are the two youth projects. I wake up every day and truly I feel fulfilled. Working with Impossible2Possible, working with youth, delivering these experiential learning programs to schools, and the feedback that we get from the students, the lives changed of the youth ambassadors that come on these expeditions, the feedback that we get from teachers, it totally makes it all worth it.

At the end of each day—or in the middle of each day, depending on what time zone we’re in—we set up video conferencing software so our four youth ambassadors are able to share with thousands of students in classrooms all over the world an opportunity to conference in and ask our students questions live, like “what’s it like running a marathon a day?” We partnered with the United Nations and we used this expedition to Bolivia, where the world’s largest salt flats are, to share the story of chemistry. So you see, the tie in is salt, and the story of changing biochemistry. The students, the five youth ambassadors in this case, started their run at 11,000 feet and make their way up to 15,000 feet. They ran an average of 35 a day, at that higher altitude, and every day they would share their stories, they would tell the students in classrooms the things they were learning about their bodies on a biochemical level every day.

What are the next expeditions you have planned?
We’re going to Rajasthan, in India, the Thar Desert (in November). It’ll be an 8-day expedition, average of somewhere close to 40 K (25 miles) a day by the youth ambassadors, and we will visit anything associated to the quality of health care in a community, that’s what we’re going to tie the whole curriculum around. So again you’ll have a live website that’ll track the expedition. Every day, videos, photographs, video journals shot by the students will be put up, on site, so people will be able to really get a handle on what it’s like.

What are you feeling when you finish a trek?
I finish a trek and I can’t wait to get back to see my family and be with my family, but also there’s a sense of showing again that regular people can do neat things. Let’s not forget, I’m not a life-long runner. It’s like, once again, a regular person goes out and does something that in their life is extraordinary. Well, we can all go out and do the extraordinary.

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